Music Critics Pick the Last Song They Want to Hear Before They Die

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As you probably know by now, the end is near. In fact, it’s tomorrow — at least, according to these unquestionably sane and reasonable folks. So, while crafting a top-notch tinfoil hat or slapping together a stairway to heaven would also be perfectly defensible ways to prepare for the apocalypse, here at Flavorpill we’re celebrating by asking our contributors and some of our favorite music critics which song they’d most like to hear before they die. (No, nobody picked anything as obvious as “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”) Read about and listen to their diverse, surprising, and fascinating picks after the jump.

The Five Stairsteps — “Ooh Child”

I know what song I want played at my funeral: “Days” by the Kinks. It just sums up everything so neatly. But the first song that came into my head as the last one to hear before I pass is the same song that always seems to enter my head first: “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps. Because it’s the song that makes me feel happiest, every time I hear it. And why not go to the next bardo with a smile on my face?

Ann Powers

Franco & TPOK Jazz — “Limbisa Ngai”

A few years ago, a number of friends (some critics, some not) had taken to filling CD-Rs with MP3s of songs from a particular year, and my friend Mike picked 1984, pretty much the definition of a great pop year: great radio hits, teeming underground, 12-inches and albums and MTV making it seem like there was action wherever you turned. At the very end, he put Franco & TPOK Jazz’s “Limbisa Ngai,” a solid ten minutes of Congolese guitar rumba from the man who minted the style. “It’s pretty much the greatest thing ever,” he said at the time. I think he should have cut “pretty much.” For six or so minutes it’s a song, full of dips, stops, subtle builds, gorgeous vocalizing, and restlessly looping guitar. Then it steps out, and the guitars start ratcheting things up. They’re rough, vibrant, alive; they miss notes — the drummer even screws up the horns’ cue. And all of that just makes the record more exciting. They’re reaching — it’s in their grasp. And when they finally connect, when the horns finally enter, the effect is so total, so enveloping, that it can be like everything else — not just in the song — was leading up to it. Then they do it again, and again.

Michaelangelo Matos

Wild Beasts – “Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants”

I hope that if I know when I’m going to die I act nonchalant and cool about it like Angelina Jolie in Wanted, and not like a total mess, like Angelina Jolie in Life Or Something Like It. I picked “Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants” because I never get tired of it. I’m sure I’ll want to hear it whether the apocalypse is tomorrow or a few years from now or just after I finally pay off my credit cards. Musically I think it embodies the above — it’s accepting, sort of swinging towards and embracing death. Lyrically too: “C’mon we’re young, yet we’ll be dead as soon.” Or “adopting this young spirit of sin / to make the most / before we turn to ghosts.” It’ll sound good in that dark, lawless time between the Rapture and the return of Christ. But I’m sure I’ll be taken in the Rapture; in which case I’ll be listening to Röyksopp’s “Happy Up Here” while the rest of you burn.

Jessica Suarez

The Chamber Brothers — “Time Has Come Today”

I was going to pick “How Soon Is Now” by The Smiths, as they’re my favorite group, and it’s a magnificent brooding wall of multi-tracked Marr guitar that sounds ominous and vaguely apocalyptic. But I think if it actually was the end of the world, you’d want something slightly more upbeat, so I’m going with “Time Has Come Today” by psychedelic soul group The Chambers Brothers: the 11 minutes and six seconds version on the LP, rather than the much shorter single version that was a hit in 1968. Not only are the title/chorus and lyrics just perfect for History’s End — “There’s no place to run/I might get burned up by the sun/But I had my fun” — but there’s that deranged mid-section of crazed laughter, guitar carnage and reverb-delirious drums, like dub invented five years ahead of schedule.

— Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past

The Beach Boys — “Don’t Worry Baby”

Call me sentimental, but I have to go with “Don’t Worry Baby” by the Beach Boys. That song is the equivalent of lying outside in the sun on a June afternoon. There’s something about those teenage hymns that’s beautiful and wistful and comforting all at the same time; it makes me think that the end will be more dissolving in golden light than hellfire and brimstone.

Margaret Eby

Growing — “Onement”

I’ve cheated here and elected to listen to a song while I’m dying, which means that, technically speaking, it will be the last song I listen to but I probably won’t hear the end of it. I listen to music during every part of my waking day and during most events that I can think of so I don’t see why dying should be any different. I’ve opted for quite a nice, relaxing drone by the group Growing called “Onement” from their The Soul Of The Rainbow And The Harmony Of Light album on Kranky.

Now normally I would select music based on aesthetic principles but when it comes to striding through the fizzing portal, embracing the constant companion and joining the majority — something that most people would agree, is likely to be a nerve jangling experience — pure functionality is my main concern. When I was a young man in the early 1990s, a radio station launched in the UK called Classic FM. It ran a test signal for an entire year before going live. The sound was of the bucolic English countryside and all the animals it contains, the pleasant sounds of nature (either a field recording or something engineered to sound like a field recording) gently interrupted by the distant hum of a one prop plane or farm vehicle. I can’t tell you how many times this test signal (and a tape recording of the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4) got me out of psychedelic trouble when I had catastrophically misjudged the dosage of some illegal medicine or other. So this music is being chosen for its soothing properties mainly.

Also, it’s highly unlikely, but I kind of think that there’s an outside chance that dying is a pretty good laugh. The heightened sensation of something new. The release of natural pain killers. A feeling of release. All of which means I want a suitably calming, yet mind expanding soundtrack. And just in case it is a nice experience, I want something that sounds good “on drugs.”

Finally, dying is probably a lot like falling asleep (for those who don’t get shot in the stomach or jump off a bridge) so I’d like music that doesn’t have any unexpected lurches in volume or tempo or even any tune or lyrics. I find the process of falling asleep pretty horrible… as soon as I’m nearly there I struggle to get back awake again and this tends to go on for ages. For once I’d like to just slip off gently. Almost like I’d never been here in the first place.

The second track on the album “Anaheim II” is pretty gnarly though, so you’ll have to leave track one looping until I flatline.

John Doran

La Monte Young — “The Well-Tuned Piano”

Two reasons: First, it’s the piece that would buy me the most time, since it’s five hours long. By the end, I’d be ready to go! And second, it would give me one last chance to brag about owning a copy — it’s pretty rare! If you can’t take it with you, might as well show it off before you go!

Marc Masters

Alice Coltrane — “Journey in Satchidananda”

I think something sanguine and still a little melancholy at the edges, maybe something off side one of Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda — the title track is pretty mystical, and Pharoah Sanders is on it, for extra trancendance: perfect to cool you out for the trip to some great beyond. Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece” would also be a top choice.

Jessica Hopper

The Rapture — “House of Jealous Lovers”

Whether it’s gonna be Christ gathering the faithful or the Son o’ God ending a battle or angels getting down or if it’s just another May weekend, the right way to face the impending rapture should be The Rapture itself. Their 2002 single wasn’t just one of the greatest indie hits of the new millennium, it was also one of the greatest dance grooves of the last decade. There’s dozens of remixes floating out there but stick with the Chic guitar, minimal beat and yelping vocals heard in the spartan original 12-inch for a real groove to go out of this world on, literally or figuratively.

Jason Gross

Gladys Knight & the Pips — “Midnight Train to Georgia”

I figure if I’m going to be dead anyway, I’m not going to remember what I listened to for my sonic last meal, so I might as well just pick a song I really like. I have “Midnight Train to Georgia” on a musty 45 I bought on a corner back in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, and it always just sounds great. And if I have to go… wherever we go… who better to urge me on my way than passionate, passionate Gladys and her guardian-angel Pips? Alternate selection: Any version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” (California Raisins not included.)

Marc Hogan

Team Dresch — “Fagetarian and Dyke”

I’d rather go out with a bang than with a whimper. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” as Dylan Thomas would have it. That’s why I’d choose “Fagetarian and Dyke” by the legendary queercore band Team Dresch as my last sonic memory. In addition to being my favorite song ever, this track contains the single most blood curdling scream to have ever spilled from a woman’s mouth. The howl in question belongs to one Ms. Kaia Wilson, whose mastery over the higher, more glass-shattering registers of pitch recalls a bulldozer systematically smashing every shop window in your local mall. Whenever the song switches schizophrenically mid-line from pop to mania, you experience visceral shock.

In my opinion, the song should be canonized alongside the complete works of the Rites of Spring in some kind of Masterworks of Emo collection. Perhaps I’d call it “LAST RITES” because all the emo after the golden age of the early ’90s pretty much sucked. Good emo is only embarrassing because it’s so goddamn cathartic, and because there’s actually a lot of earnestness and even optimism hidden in the lyrics — a zen-like euphoria, an existential joy. “Fuck this. I spent the last ten years of my life ripping off the Smiths,” sings Team Dresch. It’s a memoir of a life lived wrong that’s only beginning to be turned around. But the melodies involved are beautiful and Smiths-worthy, with unexpected development in the bridge, and there’s an ear worm of guitar riff that will undoubtedly make me want to pick up a guitar and spend my last five minutes on earth noodling around.

Amy Klein

The The — “Love Is Stronger Than Death”

I’m an atheist with no belief in an afterlife, but I do like to think there’s a symmetry or sense to the universe. So in seriously contemplating the demise of humanity in some sort of fell swoop, I think the last song I should like to hear before we all get raptured, or whatever the hell is supposed to happen when the world ends over the weekend, would be sad and wistful. I imagine my final thoughts would be reflective on who and what have meant a lot in my life, and this is one of those songs that manages to bring to mind all the sad, all the optimistic, and all the philosophical pockets in my mind. So my last four and a half minutes of consciousness would be fairly serious… you know, if any of this crap were real. I’m fairly certain we’re all good until 12/12/12, though.

Courtney Smith

The Tragically Hip — “Nautical Disaster” or Rachel’s — “Last Things Last” or Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopédies”

The Tragically Hip’s “Nautical Disaster” is about the weird injustice of being alive in the first place, of surviving, of being in a lifeboat listening to those “fingernails scratching against the hull.” Pretty much how we are, and some can hear it more than others. Anyhow, it’s a reminder of our duty to the water and I imagine it would be comforting. I also love that band in a way that’s comforting in itself. I dunno. Maybe it would be Rachel’s “Last Things Last” because it’s beautiful and feels like the “last song” more than anything else I can think of right now. Though, I’m as scared of death as much as the next human, so I might want the song to linger a bit, you know? Replay a few of my more poetic memories. In that case, Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopédies” sounds a bit like what you’d imagine the piano player in heaven’s lobby to be playing and, since there is no heaven actually waiting, that might be nice as well.

— Michael Byrne

Big Star – “The Ballad of El Goodo”

Despair of the apocalyptic persuasion has had me in its grips more than once, and in those instances, this song has been able to make me feel like there’s more out there than the sinister moment I’m facing. Ricky Fitts said it best in the 1999 film American Beauty: “There’s this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever.” This song embodies that feeling for me. So, if I’m actually going to go out in the heathenish blaze with everyone else, I’d like to hear it one last time.

Heidi Vanderlee

Pink Floyd — “Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up”

If I were to die tomorrow, I’d like to go out with a scream, and I can’t think of a scream more horrific and exhilarating than the one on Pink Floyd’s “Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up” — an alternate version of “Careful with that Axe Eugene,” which appears on the Relics compilation, and in the film Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (and which I recently included on a mix for the blog Pixelhorse). This take was recorded for the closing scene of Michael Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriskie Point, where Daria, the leading lady, imagines her boss’s house blowing up in the desert outside Phoenix. We start with a woozy instrumental passage, with a choir “ooo”-ing on high and a single-note bassline that seems to grow more insistent with each repetition. When Roger Waters cuts loose with the wail, the moment kind of speaks for itself. It’s as unexpected as the explosion that just occurred in the film, and for all its furious negation, pretty life-affirming.

Emilie Friedlander

Johann Johannsson — “Part 4”

I suspect that sentimentality would ultimately lead me to choose “Part 4,” the piece that closes Johann Johannsson’s 2004 album Virðulegu Forsetar. (If I was feeling in a particularly spit-in-the-face-of-death mood that day, I might opt for the Futureheads’ cover of “Hounds of Love” instead. But that’s a damn good choice for many occasions.) It’s a warm, stately, ultimately blissful work, majestic and hopeful in equal measure. On the other hand, my more clever answer to this would have to be Jem Finer’s composition Longplayer, for the sole reason that its running time is estimated to be one thousand years. And if that’s the last thing I’m going to hear…well, that buys me some time.

Tobias Carroll

Sufjan Stevens – “Chicago”

I almost chose his cover of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” which is a spiritual and almost funereal hymn, but that would be far too Dawson’s Creek of me. Instead, Sufjan’s crowning moment, Chicago, deals with regret and surrendering to the world – that seems like an appropriate reflection when you’re staring the end of the world in the face. But, at the same time as being a deeply affecting song, I challenge anyone not to feel galvanized by the sheer euphoric force of its melody and arrangement. And if it doesn’t make you want to sing/smile/holler/embark on an epic road trip, then your time has probably come anyway.

Kate Hutchinson

Arthur Russell — “Being It”

This week I graduated from college and I have kept “Being It” by Arthur Russell on repeat, which is the song I’d most want to hear if the world was about to end, too. “Being It” is one of the truly pure songs I’ve heard in my life. As Arthur creates massive, meditative textures of echo and reverb with his cello, I can think of no other word to describe the song but “transcendent.” Many of the lyrics remain undecipherable to me, but near the end of the track, when Arthur sings, “it is only being,” I really feel my existence. I think this song is gentle and hopeful and human and incredibly deep, and I would want to let it all wash over me one more time.

Jenn Pelly

Spiritualized — “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space”

Some deaths deserve theme songs. If I happen to go out in a blaze of outlaw glory — or an apocalyptic rain of hellfire — only Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” will do. But based on what I know about myself, the hospital bed/IV drip/surrounded by family scenario seems far more likely. And, in that case, I’ll want to be elevated.

Jason Pierce, the man behind Spiritualized, has two main obsessions: mortality and transcendence. And yet, it’s not the underlying content of the title track from 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (or, for that matter, the surprisingly poignant Elvis reference) that would draw me back to it. For me, the song is associated with one of my favorite musical memories.

I was 14 years old, on vacation with my parents in North Carolina and behaving terribly. We were hiking in the woods. I had just bought the CD after seeing the video for “Come Together” on MTV’s 120 Minutes. In the midst of some inane temper tantrum, I ran off far ahead of my mom and dad, climbed a boulder, and pressed “play” on my Discman while staring up through the trees at the sun. In retrospect, it was a contrived and bratty moment, but a serene and transporting one nonetheless. As disgusted as my teenage self would be at this admission, that is the place and time I’d most want to revisit at the end.

Judy Berman